V-Letter and Other Poems. By Karl Shapiro. Reynal and Hitchcock. $2.00. For the Time Being. By W. H. Auden. Random House. $2.00. Take Them, Stranger. By Babctte Deutsch. Henry Holt and Company. $2.00. Moderate Fable. By Marguerite Young. Reynal and Hitchcock. $2.00.
Looking over the year’s poetry, one must for once agree with the majority of the critics and single out Karl Shapiro’s “V-Letter” for special praise. Here at last is the American poet of this war, in spite of his denial that he is a “war poet.” Shapiro has utilized his experiences as a soldier in this war not with specially prepared apparatus or dramatically announced attitudes: he has taken them as he found them—precisely and accurately as he found them—and brought to bear on them a mature, original, and subtle poetic technique. The poems in Shapiro’s second volume show a remarkably firm and steady talent, a mastery of the more fundamental poetic devices, and a complete lack of exhibitionism and meretriciousness. Shapiro has learned from the modern poets—there is much of the earlier Auden in his verse—but he is neither a chameleon nor a parasite: he has his own accent, and he enunciates with quiet confidence. The diagnostic poem, where insight is achieved through continuously illuminated description and emotion communicated by the precise and unexpected use of imagery and allusion (as in “Elegy for a Dead Soldier” and “Nigger”) is his most characteristic and successful achievement. His mastery of the stanza—both its traditional forms and others—is notable: few modern poets have given the sonnet as much contemporary life as has Shapiro in “Christinas Eve: Australia,” and few have used a four-line rhymed stanza with the force and originality of “Sunday: New Guinea.”
In striking contrast is the new volume of W. H. Auden, who disappoints keenly. Here is a poet well skilled in the art of verse, a poet who has proved himself able to handle language powerfully and excitingly. He has both technical proficiency and the poet’s clear, strong imagination. He has both a rhetorical and a lyrical gift. Yet, on the whole, both the sequences in “For the Time Being” fail. They contain some skilful and impressive passages, some intriguing devices and some carefully surprising expressions—but throughout them all the poet is too far away from his readers; he addresses them through masks, in phrases which he has culled absent-mindedly from eccentrics with whom he has argued alone on subjects that were never announced.
It is not enough for a poet to be wrestling, seriously and with complete intellectual honesty, with the truth about man and his destiny: he must be effective as a poet, too, and his insights must have the inseparable connection with his medium that marks the artist. Too often in these poems poetic skill and personal wisdom go off in different directions, leaving us with the feeling that Auden may be a wiser man now than he was—but he is not as good a poet.
Auden has reached the stage where the disparity between his insights and his poetic feeling has reached disastrous proportions (disastrous, that is, for his art). A philosophicoreligious poem such as “For the Time Being” is intended to be must be based on a system; it cannot create a system as it moves, as this tries to do (for Auden is not really the poet of a traditional Christianity). The metaphysical mode in poetry can achieve that combination of cynicism with passion that the earlier Auden caught from Donne: but if you wish to write on Dantesque or Miltonic themes you must share more with your readers than Auden has ever been able to do. Perhaps it is largely a question of attitude—you cannot simultaneously deride and exalt your readers. At any rate, for one reason or another the poetry and prose in this book fail to come alive into any significant unity of expression, and the words fall from the page like dead leaves whose colours we admire but whose patterns in falling add to their colour no new reality.
Babette Deutsch, whose latest book is “Take Them, Stranger,” is one of those sensitive and intelligent writers who have a strong feeling for poetry, a perceptive mind, and a love of language, and who achieve poetry occasionally— in the midst of a great deal of competent verse—through the conjunction of all these qualities. That conjunction is comparatively rare in her work, for, unlike the poet of genius, Babette Deutsch summons her separate abilities and endeavours to use them in conscious combination in order to produce poetry. Thus while very few of these poems astonish and shock us with the recognition of real poetry which is an unmistakable and unforgettable experience, very many of them please by subtlety of thought and effectiveness of expression—they interest rather than shake us. Occasionally, there is more than this: “Annunciation” is a remarkably fine sonnet, and there are passages in the longer poems that go beyond mere subtlety of idea and effectiveness of expression. The critic—who may consider himself fortunate if he can produce poems as good as the worst of these—may be tempted to patronize; but the fact remains that a talent like that of Miss Deutsch—sensitive and critical: she is the ideal reader of poetry turned poet — is a great omen for good in any civilization. Cultures have died before now through lack of such.
Very different to the ear, but not dissimilar in its deficiencies, is the poetry of Marguerite Young in “Moderate Fable.” Miss Young has a metaphysical sense of imagery which ought to produce impressive poetry but which somehow stops short of it. There are many noteworthy lines in Miss Young’s verse, many exciting “conceits” and graphic images; they are laid before the reader one by one, with the note of passion dropped in carefully at intervals in order to make speculation lyrical. It is only when the metaphysical and the exclamatory notes are both subdued to an autobiographical meditation—as in “The Funeral”—that the result emerges as really effective poetry. One has the feeling that Miss Young works too hard at producing poetry: her book suggests effort rather than spontaneity—whereas great poetry should always appear spontaneous. Miss Young’s poems deserve to be studied by those interested in the problem of poetic expression; for they are in fact exercises in poetic expression rather than perfect poems. If the reader can explain why this should be so, he has learned a great deal about the nature of poetry.